Though many of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales have become so ingrained in our culture as to become part of the collective psyche, The Tinderbox is not one of them and Norwich Puppet Theatre’s adaptation has some answers as to why. A convoluted story with no moral compass and in which none of the characters is particularly appealing, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening and even more difficult to care.
As a soldier strolls through the woods, he is accosted by a witch who asks him to climb inside a tree. There, she tells him, he will find chambers full of riches for him to keep, as long as he fetches her the tinderbox within. Returning having completed his mission, and with pockets full of coins, the soldier withholds the tinderbox when the witch refuses to tell him why she wants it. Instead, he chops off her head and happily travels to the city, where he hears a prophecy: the princess, locked away in the castle, will one day marry a common soldier. His fortune brings him short-lived luxury and fair-weather friends, and after recklessly spending it all he is forced to live in an attic. He strikes the tinderbox to light the room, and learns that it has magical powers, through which the murderous, greedy, and desperately underserving soldier eventually has a happy ending.
It would be interesting to have an ethically dubious story that breaks the traditional fairytale mold, but The Tinderbox neither subverts nor explores ideas about ethics – it merely presents us with a lead character who pays no attention to them, and a world that doesn’t mind. With no moral code, it’s hard to empathise with the characters or feel invested in the action, and it also removes any sense of justice, something which children ‘eagerly respond to’ and look for according to acclaimed children’s playwright David Wood.
The unfamiliar story is all the more puzzling without the fairytale conventions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as sign-posts (the children near me were constantly asking their parents which heading each character and action would fall under). This is compounded by the set and puppets – there is no cohesive design, rather each element and prop is in a different style. This works well in one sense – we see a wide range of puppets, including a brilliant humanette royal couple with huge regal wigs. However, it’s hard to follow what’s happening. For instance, three of the key characters are a trio of dogs that appear at two points in the narrative, but I didn’t know this until I was at home reading a summary of the story, as their depictions are so varied and their input unclear. It also makes for a stage that looks like a collection of unrelated things rather than a set, with the passing of time indicated by more stuff being unpacked rather than the story advancing.
Norwich Puppet Theatre took on a challenge in choosing to adapt The Tinderbox; more could be done to make it accessible to those watching. I’m not saying that children’s theatre should be easy, but this production needs to give its young audiences a break.
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